Trish Groves: Turning the light on

BMJ Deputy Editor Trish Groves blogs from the Council of Science Editors (CSE) annual meeting in Vancouver.

“Accurate and transparent reporting is like turning on the light before you clean up a room: it doesn’t clean it for you but does tell you where the problems are” (Frank Davidoff, editor of Annals of Internal Medicine, 2000). Quoted by Professor Doug Altman from the Centre for Statistics in Medicine in Oxford, in a conference session on transparency in reporting research, this neatly summed up the point of all those statements such as CONSORT and QUOROM which editors make you follow when writing your papers.
Doug and David Moher, director of the Chalmers Research Group in Ottawa, emphasised that these statements and guidelines on reporting research aren’t aimed primarily at improving the way research is done (though that would be nice).

They’re there to ensure that research is reported clearly in journal articles and also, perhaps, in presentations at conferences. Saying what you didn’t do in your study is as important as saying what you did do, and it allows honest discussion of your study’s strengths and weaknesses.

With the best will in the world, research is often messy, and reviewers, editors, and readers will forgive and learn from mess that doesn’t fatally flaw the work.

If you find all these statements confusing or don’t know where to find them, a new online resource called EQUATOR (Enhancing the Quality And Transparency Of health Research), set up by the core CONSORT team, will help you out. It’s already up and running at but its official launch meeting is on 26 June at London’s Royal Society of Medicine.

Doug and David were speaking at the Council of Science Editors (CSE) annual meeting in Vancouver. The city was, unusually, bathed in glorious sunshine. It was a long weekend because Monday was Victoria Day, and it seemed that everyone who wasn’t working was on the beach, sailing, or mooching round Granville Island’s stalls and cafés.

Yet, despite the odd bit of sneaking out (and ever helpful and realistic, the organisers laid on “playing hookey” lists of places to go and things to do) the CSE meeting was packed and lively.

The big news was the announcement by Ana Marusic, current CSE president and editor of the Croatian Medical Journal, of the council’s next global theme issue – on the topic of climate change. The last global issue, published nearly simultaneously last autumn in 237 biomedical and science journals round the world (including the BMJ), was on poverty, human development, and health, and was a truly impressive feat. We’ll tell you more about the global theme issue on climate change as soon as possible.

I had to get back to the UK before the meeting ended, so missed Dr Karmela Krleza-Jeric’s presentation on reporting the results of clinical trials in registries. This is more akin, I think, to looking through the window of Frank Davidoff’s messy room with a torch, because results will usually appear in publicly accessible online trial registries long before they appear in journal articles.

With the backing of the Canadian Institutes of Health Karmela and a working group are developing PROCTOR (Public Reporting Of Clinical Trials Outcomes and Results), guidance on doing this in a consistent and transparent way. PROCTOR matters because the growing movement to register clinical trials is about to step up a gear. From this autumn, entries on for trials of drugs and devices requiring approval by the FDA will have to include trials’ main results as well as their designs and protocols.

Other registries will no doubt follow suit soon, and the movement to make results available to all has a lot of academic, political, and public support. But teams at clinical and other registries aren’t yet sure how best to report trial results in a way that provides essential scientific detail without being unwieldy and too complicated for all potential users, including the public and patients. PROCTOR may well solve that problem.

Competing interests: I was on the group that developed the latest version of CONSORT (coming soon) and the SPIRIT (Standard Protocol Items for RandomIzed Trials) for writing protocols transparently (also coming soonish), have contributed views on PROCTOR, was the editor of the BMJ’s contribution to the CSE global theme issue on poverty, and was in Vancouver at the BMJ’s expense to speak on plagiarism.